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NO 147-148

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Helsinki Charter No. 147-148

January - February 2011


Visegrad Lessons for the Western Balkans


(Specially for the Charter from Zagreb)

By Davor Gjenero

What's tragic is that the assessment of South European states' political capacities for EU integration clearly indicates that the region has not yet created the conditions that were established in the territory of Middle Europe back in 1991. And what reminded us of this fact was the summit meeting of the Visegrad Group on February 15, 2011, convened to mark its 20th anniversary. Namely, in 1991 Vaclav Havel, president of Czechoslovakia, Lech Walesa, president of Poland, and Joszef Antal, prime minister of Hungary - all of them major actors of the democratization wave leading to the ouster of authoritarian regimes under the wing of the Soviet Union and the establishment of democracies in these countries - came together in Visegrad, a historic Hungarian town on the banks of the Danube, and formed a three-member group for mutual support in the process of EU accession. After Czechoslovakia's separation into Czech Republic and Slovakia the group of three became a group of four.

Both the group's founding fathers and the countries that strongly supported it - the then EC "twelve" and US in the first place - wanted to the initiative to be an open-ended one. In mid 1990s Slovenia and Croatia were invited to join the group. Unfortunately, the then leaderships of the two countries arrogantly turned down the invitation. The then Croatian president, Franjo Tudjman, publicly claimed that Croatia's democratic and economic deficits were smaller than those of the countries making the Visegrad Group, which would make it possible for his country to join EU before them and on its own. This estimate of his, like so many others, was utterly wrong. The estimates of the political class of Slovenia - considered by many the most promising new democracy - were about the same. However, Slovenians never referred to them so arrogantly and clumsily.

From the very beginning the three leaders planned the initiative on cooperation between three countries by the model of European cross-border cooperation. They founded it on the principles of convergent political systems, pragmatism and structured and flexible mutual relationship. Three countries launched a joint initiative with a view to moving faster towards a common goal: membership of EU and Euro-Atlantic structures. They established only one standing institution - the International Visegrad Fund. This Bratislava-seated fund, formed in 1999, each year allocates 5 million Euros to scholarships, stipends and artistic exchanges. In parallel with political and social cooperation the countries of the Visegrad Group established economic ties through CEFTA mechanisms. For them - the same as for Baltic republics (having established political cooperation by a similar model) - CEFTA was an entrance hall to the common economic market and the zone of high competition, while the Visegrad Group was their "political foyer." Thanks to the pragmatism marking their mutual cooperation the Group "survived" even serious bilateral disputes over borders and over the status of the Hungarian minority challenging the relations between two member-states: Hungary and Slovakia. Through their mutually adjusted systems the member-countries worked towards the common legal legacy of European communities (acquis communautaire), the cumulative body of European Community laws, simultaneously coordinating preparations for accession referendums to achieve accession synergy. Unlike Slovenia that joined NATO only in 2004, in the second wave to the Alliance's enlargement encompassing new European democracies, Hungary, Poland and Czech Republic became NATO member-states in 1999. Meciar's autoritarianism delayed Slovakia. But thanks to its membership of the Visegrad Group Slovakia had time enough after Meciar's electoral defeat in 1998 to get prepared for the Treaty of Nice and the big EU enlargement in 2004.

Though originally planned as an EU accession initiative the Visegrad Group got a new purpose once the four countries joined EU. The coordinated vote of four Middle European states in the European Council and the Council of Ministers made their voting power equal to that of traditional European great powers, Germany and France. The Lisbon Treaty gave a new meaning to their cooperation. The ceremony marking the Group's 20th anniversary only testified of its growing significance. Back in 2000s the member-countries began adding fresh contents to the initiative. Most important of them were their joint enterprises in the domains of education and energy.

This year prime ministers of "the four" mostly discussed how to make European Union - including their countries - less dependent on Russia's gas and find alternative supply channels. So one of their latest initiatives is about connecting their gas supply systems and building a pipeline between Croatia and Poland. The initiative is already being implemented through the interconnection of Croatian and Hungarian infrastructures.

Once they joined European Union the member-states of the Visegrad group put the policy of enlargement on their priority agenda. Being a NATO member-state Hungary was Croatia's mentor in the accession process, and now, while it presides EU (in the first six months of 2011) it endeavors to ensure the finalization of Croatia's accession negotiations with the Union. Croatia's accession agreement should be drafted and signed when the "baton" is handed over to Poland's presidency, whereby the process of ratification of the accession instrument would be launched. The interest of the "four" in the enlargement policy does not end with Croatia or Southeast Europe. A guest of honor of this year's summit in Bratislava (besides German Prime Minister Angela Merkel and Austrian Chancellor Walter Feimann) was the prime minister of Ukraine, Mikola Azarov. Bearing in mind that in the domain of education the Visegrad initiative is open to Southeast European countries, Ukraine and Russia, participation of the Ukrainian Prime Minister testifies of the Group's eagerness to encourage the common enlargement policy. As said above, in 1990s leaders of Croatia and Slovenia were not up to the challenges of the initiatives launched by Havel, Walesa and Antal - but today, the two countries are fully aware of the mistake made at the time.

Slovenia admits now that this mistake cost it inclusion in the first wave of NATO enlargement and that another mistake it made by blocking Croatia's pre-accession negotiations in 2008 left it mostly isolated at European political scene (that mistake cost it all the political capital it accumulated as a once championship of transition and the first new democracy that successfully presided the Union). How matter how hard it tries today - by launching the Kucan initiative for Bosnia-Herzegovina, for instance - only one Slovenian presently occupies the office with some authority over the Western Balkans. However, he is in Austria's diplomatic service, rather than in Slovenia's - the high representative of the international community in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Valentin Inzko.

Croatia is in even more difficult situation. True, its present international repute cannot be compared with the one of the Tudjman era, but that's cold comfort. The mistake of mid-1990s and Tudjman's arrogant contempt for the countries of the Visegrad Group were the reasons why Croatia was excluded from the Nice Treaty and missed the train of EU enlargement in 2004, but also the one in 2007, which it could have made. With the summit meeting at Brdo near Kranj in March 2010 Slovenian Premier Borut Pahor and Croatian Premier Jadranka Kosor tried to encourage the emergence of a group of Southeast European countries that would establish pragmatic and systematic cooperation by the model of the Visegrad Group.

The initiative was hardly a success despite some support it got from the international community.

By his refusal to take part in the initiative and insistence on the kind of "Hallstein doctrine" - refusal to sit at the same table with representatives of Kosovo, even after the organizers opted for the informal Gymnich format with no official names or state symbols, Serbian President Boris Tadic inflicted the heaviest blow on it. In the meantime, true, Serbia gave up the Hallstein doctrine and its meeting of Europe's condition for an institutionalized dialogue with EU - acceptance of negotiations on mutual relations with Kosovo - removed the key obstacle in the establishment of multilateral cooperation with the countries in the region that stood in the way of Belgrade's administration.

The relative failure of the "Brdo initiative" coincided with the beginning of the Tadic-Josipovic dialogue. Some of international policy-makers were somewhat taken aback at the fact that the Croatian President opened the door to regional dialogue to the Serbian President and almost immediately after the later turned down the initiative in the preparations of which the Croatian government participated. To all appearances, however, Josipovic did not see the dialogue with Tadic as a substitute for regional communication but as a necessary bilateral step that had also been "hibernated."

It was only natural that the successful bilateral dialogue in the situation when Serbia was opening itself to the region and preparing for a dialogue with Kosovo - but with EU as well - was firstly interpreted in Sarajevo as the beginning of a new Belgrade-Zagreb discussion on how to solve the problems of Bosnia-Herzegovina and without Bosnia's participation. Hints at such interpretation of the dialogue of the two presidents were made in Zagreb too - true, not by influential opinion-makers. And since all relevant policy-makers in Zagreb today are trying all in their might to make a visible break with the policy of Franjo Tudjman (including those who nominally speak of that policy's continuity) even remote comparisons between Tadic-Josipovic dialogue and Tudjman-Milosevic negotiations make one feel uneasy and even panicky.

Unlike Josipovic, whom the comments that his dialogue with Tadic revived the tradition of secret agreements between Tudjman and Milosevic place in an embarrassing situation at domestic scene, while weakening his position vis-a-vis Brussels and US policy, Tadic seemed to be pleased with the interpretation about the asymmetric context of regional negotiations. He repeatedly claimed that he had tried to initiate regional dialogue, while assuming a posture that indicated that the President of Serbia had been expected to do it but could have not because he had no counterpart until Josipovic was elected president of Croatia. The statement that could have been interpreted as a compliment to the Croatian President clearly indicated an asymmetric approach to regional relations. Hence, the only dilemma for the countries in the region was whether to accept the model of Serbia's leadership on the way towards EU or to consider that model as another Zagreb-Belgrade axis that used to be so dear to the heart of Croatia's authoritarian ruler, Franjo Tudjman.

Slovenia has obviously learned a lesson from its political mistakes and today wants to compensate them with a regional structure similar to the Visegrad Group. Slovenians know now that they should better try solving even the bilateral problem with Croatia by the Hungary-Slovakia model, by keeping it was from the EU accession policy and not "internationalizing" it. Croatia has learned the same lesson - now everyone in its neighborhood can feel certain that no reasonable Croatian policy-maker would ever try solving the unsettled issues with Bosnia-Herzegovina, Montenegro or Serbia through "internationalization" or through conditioning their movement towards EU. That would be a possibility only should some new "mad emperor" comes to power in Croatia. To all appearances, even such a scenario will be ruled out before Croatia's accession to EU, and most probably by the means of a parliamentary declaration that would clearly separate bilateral questions and region wide movement towards EU, and that could be adopted after ratification of the pre-accession agreement, but before the actual membership. Bosnia-Herzegovina is blocked by its domestic crisis, but the constellation of regional relations is such that its crisis spills over the neighborhood. Macedonia is still not strong enough for a serious dialogue with Greece, while the problem of the two countries' relationship is not that superficial as it seems when boiled down only to the name "former Yugoslav republic." Namely, Greece builds its political identity as "Hellenic republic" on the continuity of Hellenic political and cultural tradition, while Macedonia's political and social elites are kind of making fun of all that tradition. However, the problem with Macedonia and Greek is a bilateral one. Greece is wrong when it tries to turn it into a regional, European or even a Euro-Atlantic issue. There is not danger whatsoever of the problem's spilling over to other countries in the region and blocking regional cooperation. Things are about the same with Kosovo for the time being, despite the fact that a serious controversy now goes about Kosovo's political leadership. Namely, the advisory opinion by the International Court of Justice clearly said that the principle of the protection of human rights was to be prioritized over the protection of state sovereignty in the process of recognition of Kosovo independence. And then it happened that Kosovo Premier Hashim Thaci (and, hence, indirectly the entire Albanian political class in Kosovo) found himself seriously accused for complicity in the worst possible form of human rights violations. The situation is the more so paradoxical since Thaci is perceived as a warrant of stability in his political environment. His political option is after Kosovo consolidation, a nation-building process of sorts, which includes recognition of Kosovo Albanians as a separate nation to be followed by establishment of close ties with their neighbors of the same ethnic origin but only within EU.

The strategy advocated by Albin Kurti and his Self-determination movement is quite the opposite. The movement, growing stronger and stronger slowly but surely (with 16 percent of vote it became the third strongest party after the December parliamentary elections), propagates the Greater Albania project more or less openly. Weakening of Thaci's position and the controversies accompanying his name and as such compromising the process of Kosovo international recognition, open the door to the "Greater Albania alternative" that could seriously threaten regional stability.

And yet, the biggest threat to the establishment of a model of regional cooperation in Europe that was affirmed by the Visegrad Group and Baltic states comes from Serbia. In this context, Serbia's political instability, the fact that its model of "agreed transition" has not taken root yet and the uncertainties about whether the transition will be pursued by democratic forces that had stood against the Milosevic region, whether the concept of agreed transition and cooperation between the moderates amongst the democratic forces and the moderates from the old regime will prevail or formal or informal heirs to the old regime will have the greatest bulk of influence over the society are not that important. What is by far more important is whether Serbia will embrace the concept of systemic cooperation with the countries in the region and refrain from any string-pulling over them or it will try to establish some form of asymmetric regional relationship. Insistence on such an asymmetry - be it in the form of "leadership" or "axis relations" with Zagreb or Ljubljana makes no difference - is destructive to the regional cooperation. Should Belgrade stick to this approach, in the long run it would be hindering the regional cooperation leading towards EU accession and Euro-Atlantic integration.

A worrisome fact for "European prospects" is that today - two decades after the fall of socialism and one decade since key authoritarian, nationalistic leaders and their regimes left the political scene - the incumbent political leaders have not grasped the context of European regional cooperation yet, the one that was perfectly clear to the three serious politicians of Middle European Countries, Antal, Havel and Walesa, back in 1991.


NO 147-148

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